Mind, Boggled


Mind, Boggled

This trip is such a kaleidoscope of texture and color and emotion that I can’t get my thoughts to settle down long enough to write about it.

There have been awe-inspiring moments. Two days ago we rose early for a predawn departure to see the sun come up behind Angkor Wat. It was breathtakingly lovely, and we managed our trek to the top of the temple before the heat and the crowds got crazy.

Many, many more of the moments have been heart-wrenching in a different way. The violent history of this area has kept parts of it almost in the dark ages. As we drove through the countryside from Siem Reap to our riverboat in Kampong Cham we were jolted and bounced over muddy, unpaved roads. Outside the window of our air-conditioned coach people worked desperately hard in the steamy heat with the agricultural technology of centuries past to sustain lives that looked like the next monsoon would flatten them. The roads were lined with swampy mud, broken down homes, kids, animals, piles of filth and debris.

In the next couple of days we will be in Phnom Penh. Day after tomorrow we visit the Killing Fields but to tell the truth the grim reminders of the havoc and tragedy of the reign of the Khmer Rouge are everywhere in this country, even as the people struggle to move past them.

The depth of depravity we humans are capable of brings me to my knees, even as the eternal hope and will to survive of the human spirit moves me beyond words.

It’s hard to process, especially from a luxury riverboat where our two room suite is larger than many people’s homes, and the food, even if it doesn’t live up to its “gourmet” billing, is plentiful.

Our cruise line, AmaWaterways, has a job on its hands, catering to western tourists who expect luxe first world standards in a region where many of the people paid to provide them have never, ever experienced them. Our cruise director keeps issuing pleas to his flock (us) — remember that these people are only a couple of decades from soul-destroying war and they are doing the best they can to catch up.

For the most part our fellow travelers hear exactly what he is saying. They are great people — interesting, compassionate, curious, smart, adventuresome and fun. There are some though who can’t stop whining about the shortcomings of the service (“Why isn’t the cold bottled water provided to us at temples iced, for Pete’s sake?”) I am surprised the crew hasn’t thrown some of them overboard.

Overall I think the AmaWaterways cruise/tour experience is terrific. Super comfortable facilities. First rate tour leaders. The excursions are carefully designed and every effort is made to educate and entertain. My only complaint, ironically, is the food, which is why I haven’t blogged about it lately. Before we left a friend said of her own trip to Vietnam that it was a perfect place to be both a vegetarian and a foodie. Not my experience, and especially not on this boat where the vegetarian options are more western than Asian. Last night’s was vegetable lasagna but I talked them into stir-fried bok choy on fried rice. I love Vietnamese food and was looking forward to that aspect of the trip so I am keeping my mind open. Maybe it will improve and maybe it is what it will be.

My personal rebellion against arranged timetables and scheduled activities means I am on a near empty boat at the moment while my fellow passengers, including my husband, are off to see how the timber industry works and visit another temple. I am struggling with textbook work, fighting a dodgy internet connection and enjoying the solitude. And feeling pretty damn lucky.

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